JERUSALEM – Israel proposed to annex 6.8 percent of the West Bank and to take in a few thousand refugees under a peace deal, but it has not revealed its position on the most contentious issue — the future of Jerusalem, the chief Palestinian negotiators said Friday night.
Ahmed Qureia said the Palestinian side did not consider the ideas presented on annexation and the return of some Palestinians to be acceptable.
Speaking for the first time in detail about yearlong U.S.-backed talks that failed to produce an agreement, Qureia's comments appeared aimed, in part, at providing a record of the Israeli position ahead of leadership changes in Israel and the United States.
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Barack Obama assumes the U.S. presidency Jan. 20. Israel holds elections Feb. 10, and polls suggest hard-line opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu could become the next prime minister.
Netanyahu opposes large-scale territorial concessions to the Palestinians and has said he would not continue the negotiations in their current format. He says he would try to focus on improving the Palestinian economy instead.
The office of outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declined to address Qureia's comments. However, aides noted recent speeches in which Olmert said Israel would have to withdraw from much of the land it captured in the 1967 Mideast War, including the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem.
Qureia told Palestinian reporters that Israel wants to keep four blocs of Jewish settlements in the West Bank — Ariel, Maaleh Adumim, Givat Zeev and Efrat-Gush Etzion. He said Israel initially proposed to annex 7.3 percent of the territory, then reduced that to 6.8 percent.
Israel offered to give some of its own territory as compensation, but not an equal trade in size and quality, Qureia said. He added that some of the areas Israel wants to annex would be crucial to a viable Palestinian state envisioned as the goal of the peace negotiations.
Israeli officials have talked publicly about keeping some settlements in exchange for other land, but have not given any specifics. Qureia has said in the past the Palestinians are willing to consider a land swap, but on a much smaller scale than he outlined Friday.
Turning to Jerusalem, Qureia said the Palestinians repeatedly raised their demand for a division of the city but were never given Israel's view.
Olmert, who will step down after the elections, has said Israel will have to give up some Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. However, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas Party, a member of Olmert's governing coalition, has threatened to quit if Jerusalem is discussed in the talks.
Qureia said Olmert's offer during talks to take in 5,000 Palestinian refugees over five years was rejected. But he added that the Palestinians do not seek the return of all refugees and their descendants, a group that numbers several million.
"To say that not a single refugee would be allowed back or that all the refugees should be allowed back is not a solution," he said. "We should reach a mutual position on this issue."
Israeli leaders have adamantly refused to accept large numbers of Palestinians, saying mass repatriation would destroy the Jewish character of Israel.
The negotiations were launched a year ago, at a U.S.-hosted Mideast conference in Annapolis, Md. Since then, Qureia and Livni have met repeatedly, in parallel to talks between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Qureia said he hopes the new American president will make solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority. "We hope that we will not have to wait" for intensive U.S. involvement, he said.